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Senators attempt to expedite Gold King reimbursements

Agency says more than $5.2 million paid, but none goes to local businesses, residents
Jason Lee, with a Crossfire LLC water-delivery crew, refills a cistern at Durango Nursery & Supply. After the Gold King Mine spill the nursery, which normally pumps water out of the Animas River, was to truck in water. Companies and individuals harmed by the spill have yet to be financially reimbursed for their losses.

A bipartisan group of senators on Monday introduced a measure that would expedite reimbursements to entities affected by last year’s Gold King Mine spill.

Colorado senators Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, joined Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, John McCain, R-Arizona, and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, in endorsing the measure, according to a news release.

“The EPA is responsible for the Gold King Mine spill, and therefore I’ll fight to hold the agency fully liable and to the same standard as a private company,” said Gardner, who is the original sponsor of the legislation. “I’m proud to lead a bipartisan group of Senators, whose constituents have also been affected, in demanding accountability and transparency from the EPA and fighting to ensure all outstanding costs are addressed.”

In a prepared statement, the senators said they hope to push the Environmental Protection Agency to cover costs incurred beyond Oct. 31, 2015, which the agency said it would not do, barring extenuating circumstances.

The measure would require EPA to pay all costs eligible for reimbursement unless the agency proves that the amount is not consistent with what is mandated under federal law.

If approved, EPA would have 90 days to pay out claims and give notice whether the agency will pay within 30 days of reaching a decision. It would also establish a water quality-monitoring program, which the EPA would reimburse local agencies to operate.

“It’s been more than a year since the Gold King Mine spill, and it’s unacceptable that the EPA still hasn’t fully reimbursed Colorado communities for their costs,” Bennet said in the prepared statement.

“The communities in southwest Colorado paid out of their own pockets to maintain drinking water, provide for extra staffing costs, keep the public updated, provide water for irrigation and monitor water quality. This amendment ensures that the EPA fully reimburses these communities and works collaboratively to institute a robust long-term water quality monitoring plan.”

Reimbursements to entities affected by the Gold King Mine spill, for which the EPA has taken responsibility, have trickled in since an agency-contracted crew released a massive plume of mine wastewater more than a year ago.

The spill affected water quality in communities throughout Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Navajo Nation.

According to EPA records, the agency has paid more than $5.2 million in costs associated with the Aug. 5 blowout, but local agencies say outstanding costs remain unpaid.

San Juan County (Colorado) administrator Willy Tookey said the EPA has paid more than $250,000 (EPA records show $269,196) to the county and town of Silverton, yet $90,000 remains outstanding.

Megan Graham, public affairs officer for La Plata County, said the county has received $172,000 in costs, and is waiting for an additional $87,000. EPA records indicate $369,578 has been paid out to La Plata County, and it was unclear Monday why there is a discrepancy.

The city of Durango, too, says it’s due more money, having been paid $45,410 of its $444,032 request. Finance director Julie Brown said the city was notified Monday that the EPA intends to pay $101,465.

Local companies and individuals impacted by the spill also are caught in the EPA’s waiting game for reimbursements.

As of July, the EPA received 68 claims for financial reimbursements, yet the agency has not made any awards. The EPA has maintained it must conduct all reviews and investigations before awarding grants for financial damages.

It was unclear Monday what the 68 filings totaled in cost amount. However, a response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in October, when there were just over 30 filings, showed claims of financial damages surpassed $1.3 million.

Those who believe they have been financially damaged by the EPA-triggered event have until Aug. 5, 2017, to file a Form 95, the claim process for financial reimbursements from economic loss caused by wrongful U.S. government actions.

EPA declined comment for this story.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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